Chicano Art and All That Jazz

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at080701a.jpgMost American museums follow the guidelines that advise against exhibitions showcasing private collections unless some of the artworks are promised gifts to the museum. Private collectors crave a museum's stamp of approval; it's good for their ego, and more importantly, it's good for their pocket. If they decide to sell the collection, the fact that it was shown in an important museum can significantly increase its value.

at080701d.jpgFor several years, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has been politely saying 'no' to one persistent collector, comedian Cheech Marin, known for his passion for Chicano art produced mostly in the 1980's and 90's. The exhibition of his collection was crisscrossing the country for the last seven years, with stops in fifteen major and minor museums. At last, Cheech succeeded in his crusade to bring this exhibition here to LA, the place where most of these artworks were made. The timing for such a show was right, considering the recent opening at LACMA of another exhibition of Chicano art, Phantom Sightings, presenting cutting-edge works by contemporary Mexican American artists.

at080701b.jpgIdeally, these two exhibitions should be seen side-by-side, but that's not the case. While Phantom Sightings proudly occupies the major exhibition space of the Anderson Building, the private collection of Cheech Marin is tucked away in the former May Company building, LACMA West, on the farthest edge of the sprawling museum campus.

at080701e.jpgTo be completely honest, the Cheech collection, even in this edited version and with the addition of a few paintings from LACMA's holdings and other private collectors, is not as good as it could be. His admirable passion for the early generation of Chicano artists sometimes got the better of him; as a result, along with first-rate paintings, he bought a number of works that I would charitably describe as insignificant. But after a long absence, it's good to have the chance to see works by Gronk, Patssi Valdez, Frank Romero, and Carlos Almaraz in a Los Angeles museum. Their best works still win you over with mischievous energy and a jazzed-up palette that turns every street scene and every interior painted by them into a stage; the characters in their paintings become participants in a never-ending carnival.

at080701c.jpgEspecially good are Carlos Almaraz's phantasmagorical night scenes of Hawaiian landscapes sizzling with the energy of a Brazilian carnival. Another work of his, Sunset Crash, turns a freeway disaster into a guilty spectacle of exploding cars against the melting gold of the late afternoon sky and the blue haze of the city beneath. The exhibition catalog says, “Almaraz's virtuoso ability to put paint on canvas is like listening to John Coltrane or any other great jazz player.” Well said. It's been almost twenty years since the untimely death of this artist, the most gifted of this group. LACMA would do well to organize an in-depth, long-overdue retrospective of this remarkable artist.

For the record, I want to reveal my special affinity for these artists. In the early 80's, I was asked to curate an exhibition for the new L.A. offices of La Opinión, the oldest Spanish-language newspaper in the country. I borrowed or commissioned works from Carlos and some other young Chicano artists, and the exhibition seemingly hit the spot with the newspaper staff as well as with its publisher, who at the end of the run surprisingly decided to acquire most of the works. All things considered, I felt as if it was my personal baptism into the magic and spirit of L.A.

Los Angelenos/Chicano Painters of LA: Selections from the Cheech Marin Collection
On view at LACMA through November 2

Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement
On view at LACMA through September 1

Banner image: Patssi Valdez, Little Girl With Yellow Dress (detail), 1995; Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 in.; Collection of Cheech Marin; Copyright © Patssi Valdez